In theory, monitoring calorie intake to lose weight sounds super simple. If we consume fewer calories than we spend, we should convert fewer carbohydrates into fat, lose unwanted pounds, and our waistlines should start to slim. Right? The math definitely checks out, at least on paper.
If we make sure our diets feature a calorie deficit, there's no way our weight could stay the same, let alone increase. But if you’ve ever stepped on a scale after being disciplined about your calorie intake, you've probably noticed that the numbers hardly budge. Why is that? As it turns out, calorie intake and weight loss aren't that closely linked.
First things first: what is a calorie?
Before we start, it's definition time. Much of the confusion revolves around what a calorie is, and why it isn't equivalent to body mass.
So, what is a calorie anyway? The word derives from the Latin for heat and was coined by French chemist Nicolas Clement in the early 19th century. He defined a calorie as the "energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one-degree centigrade." It took a while, but scientists eventually applied the principle to food, finding that one gram of fat contains about nine calories of energy, alcohol contains seven calories and protein contains four calories.
With the advent of sedentary lifestyles and lack of physical activity, people thus turned to calorie counting to curb the inevitable weight gain. Nowadays, limiting calorie intake is still very popular when it comes to losing weight. With statistics like "one pound of fat is the equivalent of 3,500 calories" being thrown around, it's easy to see why.
But that’s a simplistic view of how the body works, and there’s more to weight loss than just calories.
Why obsessing over calories isn't a productive strategy
There are plenty of reasons to shift away from calorie counting when trying to lose weight. Below are just a few:
Individual differences: Everybody is different, and calorie needs reflect this. People with larger frames and bulkier muscles tend to need more energy to function properly than smaller figures. Individuals are not averages: there is no "one size fits all" when it comes to calorie intake.
Physical activity: Calorie intake is very dependent on how active people are. If you work as an agricultural laborer, you are likely to need to eat far more than a credit controller. There's no way around that.
Energy needs vary: Whenever you work out, you burn through huge quantities of energy. Doing so requires high-calorie intake for the body to function at peak efficiency. Creating a calorie deficit will only compromise your ability to sustain exercise routines for extended periods of time.
Bodies adapt to low-calorie intake: This is something that very few people realize. When you reduce your calorie intake, your body adapts accordingly by lowering energy levels and trying to engineer a calorie surplus. If you crash diet, you'll constantly come up against this natural compensation tendency, and it can undermine any weight loss strategy.
Bodies just aren't the same: Our physiology and gut bacteria also have an impact on the way energy enters and is used by the body. New studies suggest that the same diets have dramatically different effects on individual bodies. Some people naturally process high-fat or high-sugar foods, while others are ill-equipped and simply pile on the pounds.
Food association matters: Some studies also suggest that the way we combine foods has an effect on how energy is assimilated by the body. The classic example is mixing protein and carbs. By stabilizing blood glucose levels, this combination can curb cravings, causing us to "need" fewer calories.
Calorie counting is often counterproductive: Finally, we just aren't all that good at understanding how calorie-rich our diets are, and our brain doesn't always respond well to fetishizing calorie intake. Often, we will indulge in snacks, or underestimate daily totals, fooling ourselves in the process. By placing calories on a pedestal, we also fall prey to the urge to binge. Giving in to cravings is the common flip side of disciplined calorie restriction—a really unhealthy dynamic.
How to manage calories to lose weight
Calorie intake isn't the sole determinant of body weight. However, there is definitely a link between the two. The point is, it's rarely advisable to build weight loss plans around calorie deficit measurements alone. They are just one part of an effective weight loss plan. So how can you use this tool to your best advantage?
It’s important to master the art of calorie counting and to match up calorie intake with your own physical requirements. First, work out a baseline for how much energy you need to account for daily functioning. The best guide we have here is called the Harris-Benedict Formula (HBF), which calculates an individual's "basal metabolic rate." This is a bare minimum amount of calorie intake, which assumes virtually no physical activity, so it's not exactly realistic, but it's a good starting point.
The HBF takes into account gender, weight, height, and age and comes up with a number (usually between 1,200 and 2,500). You can use online calculators to do the math, but you’re not finished just yet. After you've calculated your basal metabolic rate, this number needs to be multiplied to take into account daily activity. As a general rule, multiply it by 1.2 if you aren't very active, or 1.4-1.5 if you are very physically active. The number that results is your basic caloric requirement.
Come up with a realistic calorie deficit target
Now that you know your basic requirement and have a few ideas about how much energy you'll need during a weight loss program, what comes next? Persuading your body to lose weight is much harder than it sounds, and simply cutting calories to lose weight is a non-starter. Instead, we're going to need a smarter plan to get the job done. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
Mix proteins and carbs intelligently: Combining the right types of food can promote feelings of satiety and provide nutrients that your body requires. As such, protein should be the centerpiece of your diet. Protein-rich diets tend to increase your metabolic rate, and studies have found that the appetite-reduction properties of protein meals can help to keep the urge to binge in check.
Hydrate effectively: Studies show that water is a surprisingly important component of weight loss routines. Why? Because water increases the rate at which the body burns fat. Data suggests that the best time to hydrate is shortly before meals, which doesn't just increase metabolic rates but also helps to suppress appetite.
Remove empty calories from your diet: We know that the body craves energy if it is deprived. But not all energy is equal here. Heavily processed and high-sugar foods essentially represent a highway for fat deposits. Sodas and fruit juices are the worst culprits here (even seemingly innocent OJ). Cut out the supply and replace those empty with fresh fruit. You'll find that making the substitution really isn't difficult.
Avoid going too fast, too soon: When creating a calorie deficit, don't just slash 800 calories off your basic daily intake. Gradually reduce your intake while remaining physically active. Above all, you need to be very realistic about how much you can cut from your meals and how sustainable your efforts will be.
Ideally, any attempt to reduce calories to lose weight should be coupled with an exercise plan, and the reasons aren't just to accentuate the effects of cutting energy intake. When you eat less, the body can start to eat away at muscle mass instead. Working out systematically and boosting protein intake is the only reliable way to lose weight and retain muscle definition. For a comprehensive fitness plan including workouts and meals, head over to the 8fit app—we’ll show you how it’s done!